The Washington Post has a reality check about historically low voter-turnout areas this election year. In Montgomery County, Tennessee, for example, only 42 percent of adult residents voted in the 2016. Here are some reasons people gave reporters for why they don’t plan to vote in the 2018 midterms, mostly along the lines of “why bother?”
- “I just don’t feel I can change politics. Or, if I could help change it, I’d just be voting for someone whose solutions I don’t agree with.”
- “I just think that it’s a waste of my time…. Whoever’s going to get into office is not going to be influenced based on what my goals are or what my needs are or what the public needs. It’s going to be driven by capitalism, by big companies…. Money controls.”
- “No one’s ever pushed me to do it; no one’s told me it was important…. It doesn’t feel relevant to me. It’s not a big thing in my life.”
- “I’d be one person versus millions who probably have spent less time thinking about their vote than I have. We make point-zero-infinite percentage difference. I can do more by spending that time helping a friend out. I mean, really, that’s helping their life more than voting for somebody who may or may not be pressured into voting for something I may or may not like.”
- “I would rather not vote in something I don’t know about.”
- “I’m not into politics.”
- “I’ve thought about voting, but I just don’t want to put my faith in a person.”
- One woman said voting in the midterms isn’t “a big thing” for her, since she hasn’t seen her life change much under Trump’s leadership.
- “I don’t know who to believe or who not to believe…. I just put it all in God’s hands. I know God is really the one who’s running this country.”
- “I’m one of the biggest fence sitters, and sometimes I feel like I’m alone on my little fence. These days, you’re either right or you’re wrong. Well, I like some things Republicans do, I like some things Democrats do. I view myself as a feminist, but I see some feminism is getting turned into hatred. So I can’t vote this time.”
There’s so much to unpack there. A few themes emerge:
Knowledge. Political issues are extremely complicated, and news outlets are bad at covering them. I have advanced degrees in law and politics and spend hours each week updating my info, and I still don’t understand some important topics. What if I’d followed a different (better?) career path, and what if spent my free time on one of the many excellent non-political hobbies that exist? Or on relationships with family and friends? (There’s a thought that’s going to fester.) We lack information by default, and I give credit to the people who recognize their vote won’t be informed.
Impact. Everyone’s busy. For lack of time, we neglect a lot of things that could directly impact our lives or others we care about. By contrast, our individual votes almost certainly (I said “almost”) won’t affect the outcome of any election. Even if it did, whoever wins will probably end up caring more about moneyed interests than about our particular concerns. At the individual level, voting seems irrational.
Mythology. You campaign in prose, people always say. You have all the answers. You promise to fix all the problems, just by using common sense and being reasonable. You plaster your name all over town, on billboards, yard signs, and t-shirts. You write a book, go on talk shows. It’s easy for elections to create cults of personality, making politics more about actors than issues. It’s a let-down when the people and policies turn out to be a lot more complicated. Now that I think about it, what kind of person is deranged enough to put themselves through a political campaign, anyway? Probably no one I’d want to actively support.
Negativity. Politics is, by definition, a struggle for power. It’s a fight that never ends. These days, it ends relationships and inspires ordinary people to hate and fear each other. Is all this conflict really making anyone’s life better? It’s reasonable to conclude that the only way to get along with each other is to forget about political disagreements.
Of course, I don’t think any of these excuses is justified, and I have a comeback to each one. But those answers aren’t helpful in real conversations. I recently asked a new neighbor if he was registered to vote. He said he’s not “into voting” because “I don’t like any of them.” There’s no chance I could have changed that guy’s mind from my soapbox.
Sure, a little laziness and short-term reasoning is probably behind some rationalizations for not voting. But what I really hear is an indictment of American culture and community. Before it’s about a particular candidate or a set of policy preferences, voting is a personal investment in your society. A symbolic one? Not entirely. Your vote – whoever you support – sends a direct reminder to people in power: “You work for me, and I’m watching you.”
Democracy is like exercise. It’s effective only if it’s a way of life, instead of just an annual chore. But the truth is, this nation founded on government of the people, by the people, and for the people has really failed to sustain political engagement as a core cultural value. Participation in civic groups is now abysmally low, compared to what it was in past decades. We have virtually no national traditions or celebrations focused on the act of voting; most people have to work that day. Getting and keeping your voter registration is increasingly difficult in many states, and every November we see predictable stories about voters standing in line for hours.
Without much cultural reinforcement, voting is mostly an individual act of faith in the American experiment. That faith is too hard to justify in some places. Contentment with the status quo is not generally among the reasons people give for not voting. From the WaPo piece:
Demographically, the counties with the lowest participating rates are often impoverished, sparsely populated and rural; their residents make less money than most Americans and are less likely to own their home or have a college degree. The wealthiest counties in the country had the highest rates of participation, while the poorest counties had the lowest rates.
Voter drives are awesome, but we miss the forest for the trees by framing voting as an individual act. It should be a cultural event, marked by a national holiday and traditions that celebrate political engagement. (Maybe the holiday should be two days long, with the second day devoted to reconciliation.) As it stands now, though, I think people who choose not to vote have a realistic view about whether or not their society values their input.